When I went to the first instalment of The Chronicles of Narnia last night, one of the trailers was for the Gulf War flick, Jarhead. In the trailer, a character said to a new recruit, "Welcome to the suck." It's not a particularly witty line, but it worked all too well as a prelude to one of the most disappointing blockbusters of the year. However, before I go on with my review let me, in fairness, point out that I seem to be in the minority. All the famous critics have given it two enthusiastic thumbs up.
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE is based upon the famous novel by C.S. Lewis. It tells the story of four children who are evacuated from London during the Second World War. While playing a game of hide and seek in their new country home, they stumble through the back of a wardrobe into another world called Narnia. Narnia is governed by the evil White Witch who has made it permanently winter, but never Christmas. The children go into battle against her aided by the rightful king of Narnia, the aforementioned lion, Aslan.
So what's there to like? The child actors are all decent and the youngest is almost winning. Their English middle-class reaction to the bizarre events is very funny. When told he must lead an army into battle, the eldest child, Peter, points out that they "aren't heroes." His sister Susan follows up, "we're from Finchley". Similarly, the children are helped out by a very funny married couple who happen to be beavers. (I kid you not.) Mr. Beaver is a perfectly rendered Cockney cab driver. Superbly funny, but one wonders how far this humour will travel outside of England.
Unfortunately, the Suckfest begins where the intentional humour ends. Where to begin? The set design looks clunky and has none of the depth of design as those used in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Everything is rendered in simplistic primary colours and looks like drawings out of a colouring book. This serves to undermine the emotions we are meant to feel in the battle scenes. How can I take seriously the possibility that the kids might die in battle when they are walking around in ten-dollar rented knight costumes? In the final scene where we see the kids grown-up, the costume designer has seen fit to give the lads bouffant 1970s Bee-Gee hair-dos and droopy moustaches. This, as well as the surfer-dude Californians accents used by the talking horses, raised a mocking titter from the London audience.
The special effects are also distinctly poor, not least when you consider that Disney spent $150m on the film. At one point, as the kids stand against a background of a country scene, you can see them outlined in black where the foreground images have been "cut and pasted" onto the background. The score is also mis-judged. Instead of a traditional orchestra-based score we get some new-fangled semi-Enya semi-club music score that jars horribly. The costumes are also pretty crappy.
The more well-known actors are are mishandled. The usually brilliant Jim Broadbent as Professor Kirke (kirke=church, geddit?!) has little scope to impress given the script-limitations and largely sleep-walks through his part. Worst of all, Tilda Swinton is not at all awe-inpiring as the White Witch. She is neither fearsome in battle nor charming in seduction. What a waste. The only vaguely interesting portrayal is given by James McAvoy as Mr Tumnus.
However, the biggest problem with this movie has nothing to do with errors in the cinematic process but derives from the source material. The kicker to the Narnia stories is that much of this boys-own adventure material is a clunky allegory for the New Testament story. To be sure, Disney has played this aspect up for all it's worth in its effort to target the American fundamentalist segment of the market, but the fault lies squarely in the source material. Don't get me wrong. I have no objection to religious themes and concepts in film, but in this film the blindingly obvious symbolism suffocates any enjoyment one might have taken from the whimsical fantasy world. The cinema audience wants to feel out the story for itself, not have the Giant Director in the Sky join the dots for them.
The more I think about this movie the more angry I get at Hollywood's seeming inability to move off-formula and finance some interesting cinema. This flick is nothing more than a shameless attempt to cash in on the religious market in the wake of the huge success of Mel Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and the fantasy market on the back of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The fact that such a formulaic, derivative piece of crap was directed by the guy who made SHREK is even more lamentable. The sad part is that the studio will no doubt be proved right. The reviews are fantastic and we await the opening weekend gross with interest. Is this the movie that saves Disney from a year of flops? You, the cash-paying cinema-goer can decide.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE goes on general release in the US, UK, Germany and Austria today. It opens in France on the 21st December 2005.